Tennessee: Protect English at work, says Alexander

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Wed Jan 16 14:38:19 UTC 2008

Protect English at work, says Alexander
By JANELL ROSS • Staff Writer • January 15, 2008

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee has launched a second attempt
to protect employers from language-based, anti-discrimination suits.
His Protection of English in the Workplace Act comes after a similar
bill he sponsored passed the Senate but died in a conference committee
last year.  The bills followed two suits filed by the Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission last year. One was against a Houston ship
captain who reportedly threatened sailors with a knife after they
spoke Spanish in violation of his English-only policy on board. It was
settled in December in favor of the plaintiffs for $31,000.

The other is pending against the Salvation Army, which fired two
Spanish-speaking clothes sorters who violated the English-only policy
at a branch near Boston. The Salvation Army contends that speaking
English is a safety issue and that the organization does not
discriminate. Alexander's bill would bar EEOC involvement in such
language-based complaints. None of the 29 EEOC English-only workplace
policy lawsuits filed in the last 10 years has been filed in

In 2007, just 32 of the roughly 75,000 complaints made to the EEOC
about employers were related to workplace English-only rules. The EEOC
couldn't say whether any of the 32 were filed in Tennessee, and
Alexander's office was not aware of any. The numbers could mean
Alexander has reasons to advance the bill beyond protecting Tennessee
business owners, one analyst said. "This may really be about Senator
Alexander's deeply held beliefs or his understanding of the way that
Tennessee voters feel about immigration," said John G. Geer, a
Vanderbilt political science professor and editor of The Journal of
Politics. "Remember, Sen. Alexander has been a pretty successful
politician in no small part because he is in tune with Tennessee

Bill has mixed support

The bill is expected to begin winding its way though Senate committees
this month and has at least some powerful bipartisan support.
Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Byrd, a Democrat from West
Virginia, supports the measure and voted for the failed version last
year. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Democratic Party leaders
lobbied heavily to kill the provision in the earlier bill and have
plans to repeat the effort should it emerge from committee, said
Miguel Ayala, a spokesman for the caucus. While governor during the
1980s, Alexander signed a law making English the official language of
Tennessee, so the bill is consistent with his past efforts.

"It devalues our language and damages this country when you tell a
shoe shop owner in Tennessee that he can't create a rule requiring his
employees to speak the English language," he said. "It puts us in
danger of becoming a United Nations, not the United States." " And in
this country, in order to become a citizen, one of the things that you
must do is learn the English language."

Blanket policy opposed

One does not have to be a citizen to work legally in the United
States, Washington-based EEOC spokesman David Grinberg said. The EEOC
recognizes legitimate business purposes for an English-only policy
such as communicating with customers or co-workers, safety and
completing cooperative work projects, Grinberg said, and is concerned
only about "blanket" English-only policies. "What we are concerned
about is extreme situations," Grinberg said. "We filed one suit on
behalf of employees who were fired for speaking Spanish in the break
room, talking to family members on the phone and in another case
saying good morning in the parking lot."

Last year, Alan Sielbeck, owner of Nashville-based Interstate AC
Service, was a vocal advocate for a failed "English-first" proposal
that was floated in Nashville. It would have required Metro government
to deal with the public in English first before resorting to other
languages. He wouldn't call himself a supporter of Alexander's bill,
but doesn't like the idea of EEOC interference in business matters.

"As far as private business is concerned, I think it all depends on
the nature of a business," Sielbeck said. "If that business owner
thinks it's in the best interest of that company to have the workers
speak English and only English, they should be able to create the
policy they think best."

Nashville lawyer William "Zan" Blue, who specializes in employment
law, agreed that employers can create English-only workplace policies
if they can show that they serve a specific business purpose. Last
year, two of Blue's clients wanted to craft English-only workplace
policies. "They were concerned about the disruption they felt a small
group of employees were creating," said Blue. "In one case, there were
employees who thought other employees were using another language to
say unkind things, to talk about the other employees." That hasn't
been an issue at Nashville-based restaurant chain Cheeseburger

There are trays of chilled lettuce, pickles and tomatoes to be washed
and stacked, condiment containers to be filled and a burger dressings
bar to stock. While the staff members work, there are commands and
requests that sometimes come in English and sometimes in Spanish. "I
don't really care what language they speak," said Chuck Watkins, owner
of Cheeseburger Charley's, a seven-restaurant Tennessee franchise.
"Everybody has got to be able to communicate with customers. But I
don't have any kind of formal policy, and I really can't see why I
would need one."

Contact Janell Ross at 726-5982 or jross1 at Tennessean.com


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